Table of Contents:
A.Specific elements of a short story
1. Traditional elements in the story
2. Postmodern elements in the story
1. Description of Vietnam and the war
2. Comparison to known literary concepts (e.g. “The Green World“)
3. Meaning of gender in the story
4. Postmodern elements and their effect on the reader
When the first short story was written in the early nineteenth century, nobody thought it could be a whole new literary genre. Since a short story tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, it may convey the impression that the author just left out several things in order to finish earlier. But it is different: A short story is a good way to describe a single plot without adding unnecessary information or make it more complicated to understand the message. For me, it was most interesting to see, how a short story can help an author to express a war situation.
Since war has to be told in another way than a fairytale, I thought that a short story may be a perfect way to express ones feelings about a certain situation which is hard to understand. Due to this, the best author I could pick was Tim O‘Brien. Since O‘Brien was born in 1946, he was old enough for the army to participate in the Vietnam War. He served from 1968 to 1970 in the third Platoon, A.Co., fifth Battalion, 46th Infantry, as a foot soldier.1 He wrote nine collections of short stories. One of them was "The Things They Carried", which is a fictional collection of some related stories about a platoon of Americans in Vietnam during the war. The story "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is a very special one. And since this story is so special, but written as a short story, I was very excited to see how a complex plot can be put into a short story and which features were used by the author in order to involve the reader.
My aim for this paper is to find out how a short story works and why less is often more, regarding the topics of short stories and how the author tries to solve the problem of having less space than a novelist. Additionally, I will contrast the genres of postmodern short stories and traditional short stories. At the end of my paper we will be able to see, whether a short story is a proper way to express complex content, or not. And more importantly, why postmodern short stories are the way they are and why they contain special elements that traditional stories do not.
A. Specific elements of a short story
1. Traditional elements in the story
According to Günter Ahrends, the first meaningful American short story was written somewhere around 1820. The term "short story" was coined around 1885. It was mentioned in the essay "The philosophy of the short-story" by Brander Matthews. "Short story" derives from other literary terms like "essays" or "tales".2 There are some very important elements that distinguish short stories from normal prose. For example, there is another way of starting the story. While normal prose is started "ab ovo", which means "from the egg", which means "the reader is slowly introduced to every important aspect of the story", short stories are mostly started "in medias res", which means that the reader is instantly involved in the story without gaining any knowledge before the action starts. Regarding our short story at issue, we can say that "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is nearly "in medias res". We get a short impression of the storyteller and are "warned" that the story will contain unbelievable parts, but in fact we are not told anything about the people who participate as long as they don‘t appear in the story.
This technique is called a frame narrative, which means that an introductory main story is composed for the purpose of organizing a set of shorter stories, each of which is a story within a story. The frame story leads readers from the first story into the smaller one. Tim O‘Brien could have used this technique in order to guide his readers trough the story and draw their attention to specific issues.
Another aspect of a short story is, of course, the length. A "normal" short story is said to have somewhat between 1.000 and 20.000 words. A story with less than 1.000 words would be called "short fiction", and a story with more than 20.000 would not be called "short" anymore. Since Tim O‘Brien wrote 7.550 words, we can be sure that this is a short story.
In order to achieve a certain length of a story, another element of a typical short story is the compressed content. The reader easily recognizes a short story while reading it, because nothing is really told for a long time. Every single action in a short story is mentioned, connected to another action, and shortly described. Again, "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is a good example for that. The story is very easy to understand and the actions are lined up in a forward manner.
But there is more about a good short story than just a shortening of the content. Since we have no exposition at all, the author has to work with several writing-techniques in order to support the readers‘ comprehension. A common way to achieve more understanding, is the usage of symbolism and emotions. Short stories often contain a lot of emotions from the characters and symbols which the reader can easily recognize. An easy language (common language) helps the author to express his thoughts in a direct way.
Edgar Allan Poe once said:
In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fulness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of persual the soul of the reader is at the writer‘s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences - resulting from weariness or interruption.3
This quotation shows us, that it is the task of every short story author, to tell us what is to be told, with less words than a novelist would. It confirms the rules we already worked out, but needs a few more.
In order to keep the readers‘ attention, a short story is often without an end. Most short stories come with an open end, getting the reader to think about what he just read. If you look for a given solution for the story, it won‘t be in the text.
All in all we can say, that the elements from traditional short stories are: length, language, compression, narrative techniques, symbolism, and open ending.
2. Post modern elements in the story
The genre emerged around 1970. They do not have to differ from traditional short stories in any way, but nearly always have some very special elements we will not find in any short story before 1970. First of all, in many postmodern short stories we have intertextuality. This term was coined by Julia Kristeva during her essay "Bachtin, das Wort, der Dialog und der Roman" in 1967, where she employed Michail Bachtins "Model of Dialogicity" to Literature as a whole. Kristeva says:
Every text is built on a mosaic of quotes. Every text is an absorption and a transformation of another text. The term ,intersubjectivity‘ is replaced by ,intertextuality‘, and the poetic language is at least readable in two different ways.4
That means, that no text is a standalone text. Every text consists of several quotes, and its‘ purpose is to create a new sense with the same words. This theory becomes important when speaking of interpretation of the text and the fact, that no interpretation is more correct than another one. In "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" we can find a few intertextual parts: Mary Anne can be compared to Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse now and the behavior of the soldiers at the camp can be compared to the behavior of the soldiers in "Full Metal Jacket", when they arrive in Vietnam.
Another important aspect of postmodern short stories, which we can find also in Tim O‘Briens story, is fragmentation. A short story does not have to be written in a clear order. More importantly, a short story can consist of many different parallel plot lines. In "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" we have at least two lines. First: The War itself. Second: Rat Kileys way of telling it to the Alpha Company.
These two plot lines could imply another important aspect of postmoderns. Self-reflexivity means that the text is able to "talk" about itself during the text.
1 Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, last modified: 04. January 2010, 00:48 GMT+1. URL: http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_obrien (Visited: 13. January 2010, 09:39 GMT+1)
2 Ahrends, Günter: Die amerikanische Kurzgeschichte - Trier: Wissenschaftl. Verlag, 2008, page 3. 4
3 Bungert, Hans (Hrsg.): Die Amerikanische Short Story - Darmstadt: Wissenschaftl. Buchges., 1972, page 3.
4 Kristeva, Julia: "Bachtin, das Wort, der Dialog und der Roman" in Hillebrandt, Dieter (Hrsg.): Zur Struktur des Romans - Darmstadt: Wissenschaftl. Buchges. 1978, page 391.